Smartphones, Stress, and Sex – Tech Addiction Could Be Hurting Your Sex Life!

Is your smartphone the first thing you look at in the morning and the last thing you touch before falling asleep? Are you the 1 in 10 Americans who even look at their phone during sex?!

(Researchers think this number is likely higher, but who wants to admit to it?)

Half of Americans agree that they cannot imagine life without their smartphone. A child born in 2013 will spend a full year of its life in front of a screen by the time they are 7 years old. 75% of people aged 25-34 check their phone during the night. Americans aged 18 to 34 check their phone between 47 and 82 times per day on average.

It might be common, but this is not normal.

Tech companies and the behavioral psychologists they hire engineer their technologies to manipulate our brains in a way our human species is especially vulnerable to.

Not only are they purposefully hacking the way our minds work to keep us on our phones longer, they know it’s not healthy. Many tech titans don’t allow or limit their kids’ use of smartphones and other devices. Bill Gates wouldn’t allow his kids to have phones until they were 14. Steve Jobs did not allow his children to use iPads or iPhones at the dinner table. The editor-in-chief of Wired would not allow their kids to use technology during the week and no devices were allowed in the bedroom. It’s not uncommon for parents in Silicon Valley to send their kids to Waldorf Schools where they are required to sign a contract to limit their children’s screen time at home. The very people who profit from these technologies follow the cardinal rule of drug dealers, “Don’t get high on your own supply.”

Smartphone addiction affects people of all backgrounds and ages. You can take the Smartphone Compulsion Test on my website to see how you score when it comes to your relationship with your smartphone.

Humans and our brains evolved to seek out information and be distracted. 

This is how we kept ourselves safe in the earlier years of our evolution. In the natural environment, as hunter-gatherers we would scan the horizon seeking new information to protect ourselves from predators. This may have helped us survive back then, but in the modern world this drive to check for new posts and stories causes serious harm, physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially.

According to a 2018 survey of 1,000 people, one in ten Americans admits to checking their phone during sex. 

Among those who do admit to it, 43% admitted to doing it between 2 and 10 times in the prior year. For many it’s not just a one time thing, it’s a repeat offense. You might be wondering, “Why would anyone prefer to be on their phone rather than have sex?!” 

The truth is smartphones are specifically designed to take advantage of our brains. 

Technology addiction is not a personal failing.

Similar to Pavlov’s dog, every time we hear a ding or receive a notification for a new text, email, or like on a post our brains release the highly rewarding neurotransmitter dopamine.

Our brains have learned that checking our phone equals a reward. The reward is a release of dopamine. Dopamine makes us feel pleasure. Our brains even release dopamine in anticipation of a reward, some research suggests up to twice as much dopamine as actually receiving the reward. This means just the sound of an incoming text from your phone releases more dopamine in your brain than actually reading the text itself. Dopamine trains us to associate certain behaviors with these pleasure receptors in the brain. But, pleasure and excitement are not the same as happiness. We may be more digitally connected to our peers than ever before, but we are not happier. 

Dopamine is also released during other pleasurable activities like eating highly rewarding foods and having sex. But, when our phones go off during sex, the anticipation of what’s on the other side of that notification opens the dopamine floodgates and…well, at least 1 in 10 of us will check our phones.

In Manoush Zomorodi’s book Bored and Brilliant he shares that Golden Krishna, an expert in user experience at Google points out, “that the only people who refer to their customers as ‘users’ are drug dealers – and technologists.”

The more we check our phones, the more this dopamine cycle gets reinforced and the more it creates an addictive relationship.

Designers have a deep bag of tricks to employ to increase the time we spend on our devices, and manipulate our brains to trigger addictive behavior. They are specifically engineered to suck us in and dominate our attention.

Instagram created an algorithm that holds back new likes to users and delivers them in a burst at the most effective moment possible to discourage you from closing their app.

Facebook was monitoring teenagers posts in real time gauging when they felt depressed and actually bragged about showing them ads when they could detect those teens needed a confidence boost. While you might look at that and say “ah, but isn’t that benevolent?” – the tech company is deliberately hacking our brains. Some software engineers in Silicon Valley make some adjustments and around the world people change their behaviors in a way they think is natural but it is really by design.

In her book, How to Break Up with Your Phone journalist and author Catherine Price presents slot machines as a perfect analogy for how our smartphones create an addiction. Slot machines are widely recognized as one of the most addictive devices on the planet because of intermittent reinforcement. Just like how we don’t always win when we pull the arm down on the slot machines, we don’t always get the reward we are looking for when we check our phones. Our behavior is only rewarded some of the time. This intermittent reinforcement is what gets us hooked. Will we or won’t we get another like, email, or text? It’s our very own pocket-sized slot machine.

We experience what we are paying attention to. 

We experience and remember what we pay attention to, our lives are made up of what we are paying attention to. If we’re spending 8 hours a day on our phone or in front of a screen, this is all we experience and remember. No wonder so many people feel discontent and unhappy. All the dopamine in the world can’t fix that.

Smartphones are engineered to draw us in, keep us on them, and hijack our attention. Our attention is one of the most valuable resources we have. Our attention determines what makes up our life experience. Tech companies call us their users, but their real clients are the advertisers they sell ad space (and by default our attention) to. You are the product for these tech companies, not the consumer. Your attention and how long you spend on these apps and websites and devices determines how much these tech companies can sell their ad space for. It’s an attention economy, and they’re making money off of your most precious resource, your attention, the very thing that determines what your experience of life is like. And it’s just a small group of mostly white men in Silicon Valley designing these apps and products that consume our attention and change our behaviors all over the world.

What do you want to be experiencing in your life? 

Every moment you spend scrolling the infinite feed is money made for mega corporations instead of experiencing the life you desire. When most of my clients describe what they want to be experiencing they say everything from peace and joy to feeling alive, in the moment, and enjoying a playful, sexy relationship with their partner. 

So, what are you paying attention to? Are you scrolling through the endless feed on your phone? Can’t take your eyes off the news headlines? 

Not only does being distracted by our smartphones take us out of the present moment, but research also shows us that smartphone use increases our cortisol levels and keeps us in fight or flight mode engaging our sympathetic nervous system. Your cortisol levels increase even when your phone is in sight or you are just thinking about it!

As sexuality teacher, registered nurse, and midwife Sheri Winston says in her book Women’s Anatomy of Desire, “Great sex can only happen when you’re fully there. Erotic pleasure is one of life’s great gifts, but you have to be present to get the present.” 

And yet 80% of women report “not getting the present” during penetrative sex! 

Now let me be clear, it is perfectly normal (and highly encouraged) to orgasm in other ways during sex that do not include penetration. And I hope the majority of folks who are not orgasming from penetration are finding other ways to reach climax during sex! 

The thing about sex is while orgasm and ejaculation might be caused by the sympathetic nervous system response, arousal and erection are functions of the parasympathetic nervous system. Put simply, we must be in rest and digest mode (some call it ‘feed and breed’) to become aroused enough to reach orgasm. Unfortunately, our smartphones keep us in a state of fight or flight. 

Is it time you break up with your phone? Join my 30-Day Phone Breakup Coaching Program!

Your sex life will thank you for it!